Amazon prepares for facial recognition vote

Amazon shareholders will vote in two different polls today to asses if the online retail giant can sell its facial recognition technology to US police forces.

Ahead of Amazon’s annual general meeting on Wednesday, shareholders will first vote on whether the company should stop offering its Rekognition system to government agencies.

The second vote will look at whether to commission an independent study into the threat the technology holds over people’s civil rights.

Rekognition is an online tool that works with both video and still images and allows users to match faces to pre-scanned subjects in a database containing up to 20 million people.

READ MORE: Over 20 AI experts call for Amazon to stop selling its facial recognition tech to law enforcement

Amazon recommends law enforcement agents should only use the facility if there is a 99 per cent or higher confidence rating of a match and says they should be transparent about its usage.

The votes are non-binding, meaning executives do not have to take specific action whatever the outcome.

However, the retailer has tried to block the polls from taking place, and has been told by the Securities and Exchange Commission that it did not have the right to do so.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll get strong support from other investors and that will send a signal to the company that they shouldn’t move forward with sales to governments until or unless they are able to mitigate the risks,” Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment representative Mary Beth Gallagher told the BBC.

“It could enable massive surveillance, even if the technology was 100 per cent accurate, which, of course, it’s not.

“We don’t want it used by law enforcement because of the impact that will have on society – it might limit people’s willingness to go in public spaces where they think they might be tracked,” Gallagher added.

Amazon has urged its shareholders to vote against the proposals, saying it has not received a single report for the system being used in a harmful manner.

“In light of our commitment to customer trust, privacy, and security; the material benefits to both society and organizations of Amazon Rekognition’s image and video analysis capabilities; and our mission to make Amazon Rekognition the most accurate and effective tool for identification purposes, the Board recommends that shareholders vote against this proposal,” Amazon stated in its AGM notes.

“[Rekognition is] a powerful tool… for law enforcement and government agencies to catch criminals, prevent crime, and find missing people,” Amazon added.

“New technology should not be banned or condemned because of its potential misuse.”

Despite the assertions from Amazon of its safety, 450 of Amazon’s own workers have opposed the sale of the technology, signing a letter delivered to Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos and other executives last October.

Last month Amazon was called on by more than 20 AI experts to stop selling its facial recognition software to law enforcement.

A petition was signed by two dozen industry experts which claimed that the two of the retailer’s top executives responsible for its AI software had misrepresented aspects of its research which suggest that it works less accurately on women and people of colour.

Meanwhile, a director of Amazon’s Web Services – the division responsible for developing the technology – told the BBC it should be up to politicians to decide if restrictions should be put in place.

“The right organisations to handle the issue are policymakers in government,” Amazon director of developer technology and evangelism Ian Massingham said, speaking to the BBC.

“The one thing I would say about deep learning technology generally is that much of the technology is based on publicly available academic research, so you can’t really put the genie back in the bottle.

“Once the research is published, it’s kind of hard to ‘uninvent’ something.

“So, our focus is on making sure the right governance and legislative controls are in place.”

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